JOHN FETTERMAN MPP 1999 is the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. His parents were just teenagers when he was born, but his father went on to build a successful insurance business, and Fetterman grew up in a comfortable suburban home, played football at Albright College, and then earned his MBA at the University of Connecticut. But after a tragic personal loss changed his outlook, he embarked on a career in public service, including as the innovative mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a hard-hit small town outside Pittsburgh. A progressive known for his ability to relate to working-class Pennsylvanians, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2016 but was elected lieutenant governor two years later.
Q. Can you talk about the formative experiences you’ve had that contributed to your entering public service?
I had a defining personal tragedy that put me on a path of reflection and on a different career path. Ultimately that’s what brought me to the Kennedy School. I was getting ready to graduate [from the University of Connecticut School of Business]; my friend was supposed to come over, and we were going to go to the gym. He never showed up. I found out why a few hours later: He’d been killed in a car crash on his way to my house. That really put me in a place that I’d never been before—realizing you could wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, and kiss your family good-bye not knowing that you had 15 minutes left on this planet. I wanted to get involved in something that felt more meaningful, more directed. So I joined Big Brothers. I got paired up with a little kid whose father had just died of AIDS about nine months earlier, and his mother had end-stage, full-blown AIDS. This was 1994, so that was of course a death sentence. It was such a jarring experience. I thought, How can this coexist with the world I know? How can you have a child who will be an orphan before his ninth birthday? At that point I had my MBA, and I was good to go. But it didn’t seem right. So I joined AmeriCorps and ultimately ended up at the Kennedy School.
Q. What were the memorable experiences you had at HKS that shaped your thinking as a policymaker?
One was meeting Alan Simpson, the former senator [from Wyoming]. I had him for a class. He was a Republican who wanted to be bipartisan and was pro-choice and would attack his own party just as easily as the other one. It’s very hard to imagine him now in today’s political environment. We hit it off, I think in part because we’re both very tall [Simpson is 6’7”, Fetterman is 6’9”], but it was really more about the wisdom he imparted and the way he carried himself. We could use a lot more of that in today’s political landscape. I was also thrilled to be able to interact with Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary, who’s been described as the architect of the Vietnam War. One of the most meaningful, impactful books I’ve ever read was In Retrospect. It’s about his reflections on the Vietnam War—that it didn’t have to happen and in fact was largely based on a misunderstanding. Just think of some of the biggest calamities we’ve had in our society—how they were caused by not having all the right information or not understanding the governing dynamics on the ground. For him to admit that he was wrong in a way that was so public, about something of which the outcome was so tragic, and then for him to want to pass that lesson on—I can’t overstate the profundity of that and how meaningful it has been in public life for me. If I hadn’t gotten anything else out of my time at the Kennedy School, that alone would have made it worthwhile.
Q. Do you have hope that we might be entering an era where good public policy and public leadership are more highly valued?
I hope so. It’s undeniable that President Trump has fundamentally altered the political genome of American politics. And we have to push back against this weird anti-intellectualism and this idea that you don’t want to listen to people who have informed opinions and years of experience and expertise. But then again, sometimes the smartest people in the room can’t get their arms around something that’s very simple. I think there needs to be a balance, and I think there’s going to be a better era of acknowledging that government for the most part is effective, that we need it, and that when it doesn’t work, we see things like how it’s gone with the pandemic. That’s when people say, “Yeah, it’s actually kind of useful to have an organized governmental response.”
Images courtesy of John Fetterman